The Coen brothers’ new dark comedy Burn After Reading leaves the audience wondering “What just happened?” Regardless of the unclear plot, the directors use highly developed characters to hint at a deeper purpose.
The story revolves around the top secret files of a former CIA agent, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). After being fired from his job due to a drinking problem, Cox tries to write a memoir about his struggles to aspire in a world full of “morons.”
Somehow, the disk containing information from Cox’s memoir ends up at a gym, where Chad (Brad Pitt), a self-absorbed fitness trainer, comes across it. Chad is willing to give back Cox’s files until his co-worker, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), convinces him to do otherwise. Instead she considers blackmailing Cox into giving her money for his personal files, so that she can pay for the cosmetic surgeries she desires.
Meanwhile, the former CIA agent’s problem with alcoholism puts pressure on his marriage and as a result, his wife (Tilda Swinton) has an affair with another man (George Clooney). Her lover, who never commits to a single relationship, also gets involved with the insecure Linda Litzke through an Internet dating service.
The storyline’s real asset lies in its characters and their connections with each other. Despite the often confusing plot, the directors deserve credit for the diverse line of personalities in Burn After Reading.
All the actors do stunning jobs of depicting hilariously human people. Interestingly, each character also has a flaw that the viewer can easily recognize and may even connect to.
The directors use dry humor to their advantage by taking real issues including low self-esteem, corruption, alcohol dependency, the quest for satisfaction, failing marriage, paranoia, and self-absorption, and twists them in such a way that we can laugh at our own weaknesses.
The real beauty of this film does not lie in the actual story, but more in its ability to illustrate that our ego is our greatest fault. The laughable characters are really just examples of what can happen when we become so selfish that we will do anything to get what we desire.